Perhaps the most striking thing about the pieces collected here is how up to date they are. The specific controversy being discussed 35 (or 25, or 13) years ago may have faded (how New York City’s 1976 fiscal crisis should have been solved; the problem of energy shortages owing to the Arab oil boycott; the defects in the Equal Rights Amendment), but the lessons drawn remain true, and the warnings have been more than borne out in the intervening years.
In no area is this more apparent than in the burgeoning of federal laws and regulations, which has, Buckley writes, transformed our constitutional republic into “an administrative state overseen by a fourth, extra-constitutional branch of government in which unelected officials write rules that reach into every corner of American life.”
To see what this has meant, we can look at the numbers:
Federal statutory law is to be found in the United States Code. In 1935, at the outset of the New Deal, the Code consisted of a single volume containing 2,275 pages of statutes. This was the work product of Congress since it first met in 1789. Today, the Code consists of thirty volumes of statutory law. But . . . that is just the tip of the iceberg. Those . . . federal statutes are administered by bureaus and agencies that in turn issue streams of marching orders that have the force of law. By 2010, the Code of Federal Regulations consisted of 225 volumes containing 35,367 pages of detailed, fine-print regulations.
Or we can examine one particularly egregious case — OSHA. Buckley cites a constituent of his who had been fined for violating an OSHA standard for guard rails. His offense? He had exceeded the OSHA standard and made the guard rail too strong.
Not that Buckley is reflexively anti-government, not at all. But, as he argues forcefully, where our federal government goes wrong, it is by departing from the Founding Fathers’ principles and their rationale. That young blogger who said a few weeks ago that the Constitution is irrelevant because it was written more than a hundred years ago will probably not read Freedom at Risk. If he did, he would be introduced to the bracing notion that although our modern industrial superpower is very different from the small agrarian nation of 224 years ago, nonetheless some things remain constant. As Buckley puts it, the Founders “were not ivory-tower theorists. Rather, they had scrutinized the historical record and knew that the one constant in human affairs is human nature itself, and that, left unchecked, its drives and weaknesses will inevitably undermine free institutions. They gave us a Constitution designed to contain those destructive impulses, a governmental structure that remains as applicable to today’s world as it was to theirs.”
But Freedom at Risk is not only about the structure of government. Buckley writes also of the nature of a people suited for self-government: It must possess “what was then referred to as ‘republican virtue’ — the subordination of personal advantage to the public good. Hence Benjamin Franklin’s answer to the woman who, at the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, asked him what form of government the American people were to have: ‘A republic, madam, if you can keep it.’ The ultimate responsibility for preserving the Republic would lie with the people.”